"On Finding My Life"

Melissa Milne Acceptance Empathy Neighbors

Right here, right now.

I keep waiting for the flowers of my life to open. Not the ones that face outward from the center, but the ones that face in.

On paper, it’s a good life, the one I live. There’s the adorable old house, near the downtown of a growing, quirky city. There’s the job that is incredibly easy, lucrative and rewarding. The beautiful, amazing children that I get to call my own. I have my health.

I have more to celebrate than many others do.

Aside from romantic love and a supportive family, there are flowers blooming all over my proverbial garden. But what about, Here? What about the flowers of goals fulfilled? The flowers of contentment. The flowers of looking back and feeling the road I’ve traversed has brought me to exactly where I’d hoped I’d go. Of knowing that I made the right choices.

Instead, I have adopted the habit of complaining, to cope with the various disappointing choices I’ve made. I’m positive and inspiring, a lot of the time, but I do go through phases of negativity. Complaining is the product of a tired mind that is out of solutions. It happens. But it has become my go-to when I’m tired or overwhelmed. Let’s be honest, as a single mother and the owner of a business and a home, it happens regularly.

I’ve fought with my neighbor on and off throughout the 13 years I’ve lived in this house. There was the issue of the street lamp. Then, the issue of her killing my plants, multiple times, that grew next to her fence. Followed by the issue of my friends and clients parking in front of her house. More recently, the issue of her new obnoxious (and aggressive) barking dog. We’ve gotten along here and there, but mostly, not. It became normal for me to come home and roll my eyes in her general direction, or ignore her if I saw her. She often did the same, and on one special occasion, even yelled a hyphenated curse at my house, out the window of her car as she passed.

Recently, her daughter died.

Surprisingly, unexpectedly, heart-breakingly, in her 30's. I was reading on my porch one morning and my neighbor came to the fence. She started crying. “Jenny died this morning,” she said, gasping for air. I put my book down and almost ran to her. “Oh, honey, come here,” I said. And hugged her tight and long. She told me what happened. I listened patiently and held her hand, across the short part of the fence between our yards. A week later, my son and I brought her home-baked cookies. She invited us in. It was the first time that either one of us saw the other’s home interior.

Within a few weeks of her daughter’s death, I saw her, leaving her house to do errands, each time looking showered, with a fresh application of make-up. I started to admire her. ‘How can she even walk, much less put make-up on?’ I asked myself. As a mother myself, I was truly moved by the way my neighbor picked herself up after the death of her daughter. I have begun to see her as a strong, willful woman who protects what’s important to her. It’s been a few months since her daughter died, and the fights between us don’t really matter anymore. Now, we say hi every time we see each other. We talk about life, in passing.

I was sitting in my office today, working at the computer and intermittently looking out my window, at large piles of dog shit that had been lying there for days, just on the other side of my chain link fence, in her yard. There were about three such piles outside of my bedroom window as well. Not only can I not open my windows because her dog barks at us when he hears us in our house, but now the smell of his shit would also infiltrate the rooms on that side of the house if I did so. I felt angry; trapped in my own home. The fact that our houses are very close (about 20 feet apart), makes a pile of shit like that feel intrusive and offensive to me. I mean, do I want to look at that while I’m working or laying in bed? No.

So, I called her, angry. As soon as she picked up and I heard her voice, I unexpectedly calmed down. I immediately asked, “How are you?” She hesitated. “Oh…ok, I guess. Some days are better than others.” Instead of asking her right away to clean up her dog’s poop, I asked her more questions about how she was, about how her daughter’s son is handling life without his mom. I also made sure she’s getting the support she needs, that she’s talking to other parents who’ve lost their children. We started talking about life, for the first time since I moved in so long ago. We talked about my divorce. About what it’s like for me to share custody. We listened to one another and offered empathy on both sides. It was a very nice conversation.

If I don’t stop and really look, at my life, then I just walk around thinking about what needs to be fixed, about what’s wrong.

I get caught up in the negative: The city, the homeless people and drug deals on the streets of my downtown neighborhood. The desert heat. The many ways in which my patience is challenged by my x-husband, and by my birth family. But since the death of my neighbor’s daughter, some part of me has softened. If a situation so close to me (20 feet, in fact) isn’t as bad as I originally thought it was, then what about other situations in my life? Is it possible that they’re better than I think they are? Am I closer than I know, to living the life I always wanted?

I’m on my couch, wrapped in a blanket, writing. A bag of my kids’ goldfish crackers is open next to me, reminding me that they were home with me just an hour ago. They’re at their father’s house now, undoubtedly having a fantastically relaxing weekend. I’m alone and I miss them like I always do when they’re gone. It’s quiet in the house, aside from the gentle hum of the refrigerator, and the almost-silent swish of our guinea pig walking through her hay in the room next to me. Out my window to the North, I see light from the setting sun caressing the shiny new growth on my grapefruit tree. I see a large woodpecker, his white and black striped wings shining brightly in the sunlight. He hops along on the fence. He flies away. I see his wings unfurl as he confidently rises into the sky. I feel his joy, his freedom.

Maybe this is what happens to my heart if I slow down.

If I see the world, not through anger or lack, but through empathy. If I don’t shut doors to what is, then maybe I’m opening them. Maybe my life just IS. I am a player amid a hundred million details, all of which are here whether they are good or bad, disappointing or exhilarating. Maybe I’m meant to choose how I want to see things. Maybe I’m meant to create this life, not by controlling it, but by observing. By responding.

By welcoming and appreciating what is, instead of finding reasons not to.



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  • Julia Hofman on

    I love this story/blog so much. It brought many tears to my eyes to hear about the softening of frustration and the opening of perspective. I find myself complaining more than I want to as well, and found this to be a helpful reminder. Thanks for writing this!


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